Astros Agree That Cooper Remains Prime Managerial Stock

By Steve Campbell
Updated: March 18, 2007

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Cecil Cooper was less than halfway into his first full season in the major leagues, with plenty to prove. On a Friday evening at Anaheim Stadium, Cooper led off the game for the Boston Red Sox with a strikeout.

Cooper struck out again in the third inning. He struck out again in the fourth inning. He struck out again in the sixth inning. He struck out again in the eighth inning. He hit the ball without advancing it in the 10th inning, fouling out to the catcher. He struck out again in the 12th inning.

Six strikeouts, all against the same pitcher. Because those were the days when the Nolan Ryan Express was a runaway train, destination unknown. Ryan faced 58 batters, walking 10 and striking out 19, before exiting after the 13th inning of that June 14, 1974 game.

Cooper got to the plate one last time in the 15th against California Angels reliever Barry Raziano. Desperate to avoid yet another walk of shame back to the dugout, Cooper lofted a harmless fly ball to center field.

And now, for the instructive part of the story that Cooper, the Astros’ bench coach, sometimes tells players: One day after 0-for-8, one day after a six-pack of embarrassment, he was in the lineup again. Cooper lashed four hits, including a double, in five at-bats.

“Perseverance,” Cooper says, his eyes gleaming.

Cooper persevered for 17 seasons in the major leagues, playing in five All-Star Games and winning two Gold Gloves. He accumulated 2,192 hits, batted .298, belted 241 home runs, drove in 1,125 runs.

He’s done it all

Cooper, 57, is about to begin his third season as Astros bench coach. He is the trusted first lieutenant of Astros manager Phil Garner, an in-game confidant and adviser. Cooper makes no secret of his ambition to be the man in charge, to sit in one of the 30 major league managerial hot seats.

“He has the best résumé,” Garner says, “of any guy who has not managed in the big leagues.”

If not for batting .248 in his final season, Cooper would have made it into retirement with a .300 lifetime average. Since he walked away from playing after the 1987 season, Cooper has been a jack of just about every conceivable baseball trade.

Eight years as a player agent. Three years as the director of player development for the Milwaukee Brewers, with whom he spent his final 11 seasons as a player. Two years as a Brewers roving minor league instructor.

One partial season as Brewers bench coach to Jerry Royster in 2002. Two years as Brewers Class AAA manager in Indianapolis. Two years in the dugout of the Astros, who are 171-153 with a World Series appearance since Cooper’s arrival.

“If a franchise is looking for a model person to put in a managerial role, they certainly ought to look at Cecil,” Astros general manager Tim Purpura says. “I think he’s got all the pieces you’re looking for. He’s really got a great portfolio of skills and experiences.”

“Probably the thing that overrides all of that is his personality. He gets a lot out of guys, and he can do it in a manner where players all want to do well for him. You want a manager whose guys will run through walls for him.”

Tough to take

Cooper is a Brenham native who came up the Boston Red Sox system alongside Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk, Rick Burleson and Ben Oglivie. In Cooper’s second full season, he batted .311 and helped the Red Sox reach the World Series.

One offseason later, the Red Sox shipped Cooper to Milwaukee for George Scott and Bernie Carbo. As the youngest of 13 children, Cooper admittedly was on the sensitive side. He also was going to a Milwaukee team coming off a 66-95 season.

“I was devastated,” Cooper says. “But they welcomed me with open arms. It made all the difference. I look back on it all, and it was the best thing in the world for me. I don’t think I’d have been the player I was if I didn’t have that chance.”

With the Red Sox, Cooper had been typecast as a lefthanded, platoon first baseman/designated hitter. The Brewers made Cooper into an everyday first baseman, stuck him in the middle of the batting order and watched him flourish.

Cooper batted at least .300 in each of his first seven seasons in Milwaukee, averaging 22 homers and 95 RBIs in the process. In a related development, the Brewers churned out a 520-400 record (.565) from 1978 to 1983.

Right-hand man

Quiet by nature, Cooper did a lot of listening and learning. Cooper came up as a stand-up-straight, line-drive hitter who tried to hit the ball to the opposite field. He learned to combine hitting for average with power by adopting an open, crouched stance.

On top of hitting as high as .352 in a season (1980), Cooper led the American League in RBIs twice. He batted .313 with 32 homers and 121 RBIs on the 1982 team that extended the St. Louis Cardinals to seven games in the World Series.

“I think he’d make a real good manager one day,” Astros All-Star first baseman Lance Berkman says. “His credentials as a player give him the respect a lot of guys wouldn’t have. He knows the game. He’s a gentleman in the game. He’s got a good demeanor. He’s not overbearing. He definitely should be given a shot.”

During a 1992-99 run as Brewers manager, Garner unsuccessfully tried to hire Cooper as a hitting coach. Garner finally got his man in 2005 — the same year the Astros made it to the World Series.

He touts Cooper, who has lived in Katy for more than two decades, as “a tireless worker” who handles all the dirty details necessary to run spring training. And when the games begin to count, Cooper is the one who has the manager’s ear.

“He has to be a very strong personality, because I may totally ignore him,” Garner says. “He may talk to me for three innings, and I may not even respond. I hear everything he’s saying, but if I know what I’m doing and I’m comfortable, I don’t even acknowledge it.”

“How would you feel if you’re saying, ‘Skip, want to do something like this?’ (and get no response). Then in the fifth or sixth inning, I might say, ‘Coop, what do you think about this?’ “

Cooper’s job is to make sure the manager doesn’t miss anything. Do the Astros outfielders need to play deeper — or more shallow? Does the manager intend to pinch-hit the next inning? Which players should be ready? Or do the Astros need to make any defensive replacements? On and on it goes. Suggestions. Reminders. Points. Counterpoints.

“These last two years have probably been the best years — non-playing — for me in my career,” Cooper says. “I’ve learned so much from (Garner). It has prepared me to be a manager. I don’t think anything catches him unaware. I don’t think I’ve seen a guy who has so many scribbled notes on the lineup card and stat sheets. He keeps so many little notes, and he refers back to them.”

Plays well with others

Of course, it’s one thing to make suggestions. It’s another to have the last word. Cooper says all he needs is a chance, that he has a better understanding than ever of how to get the most out of players.

“In today’s game, you have to be a players’ guy,” Cooper says. “You have to be a psychologist, you have to be a master motivator, but you still have to let the players play the game. As a manager, you can make a difference in X number of games in a year, but the players determine what happens. You have to let them express themselves as players. You can’t be a dictator.

“That’s why I know within that I can do this: I have the ability to reach people. Not just my race of people, or your race of people, but people in general.”

When Cooper played his final game, there had been only three black managers — Frank Robinson, Lary Doby and Maury Wills — in major league history. The 2007 season will open with only two black managers, the New York Mets’ Willie Randolph and the Texas Rangers’ Ron Washington, in the dugout.

This past offseason, Cooper got a phone interview for the Florida Marlins’ job that eventually went to former Astros minor league player, coach and manager Manny Acta.

“The man deserves a shot at a job because he’s qualified,” Garner says. “It has nothing to do with color. It has nothing to do with anything but he’s qualified. He’s qualified for what he’s done as a player, what he’s done as a coach, what he’s done in all parts of the game. He thinks good in the games. He thinks clearly. He doesn’t get frustrated. He’s not overwhelmed.”

One more time

Cooper wasn’t even overwhelmed when the time came to take his last at-bat of the 1983 season. He looked up into the press box, where Brewers announcer Bob Uecker held up one finger.

One RBI and Cooper would tie Jim Rice for the league lead. Nobody was on base, so he reached down and pounded a Dave Rozema changeup on to the right-field roof at Tiger Stadium.

“He’s a guy who has had tremendous success in the big leagues, which — right or wrong — is pretty important,” Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg says. “I think guys tend to trust guys a little more who have had some success in the big leagues. He keeps it loose. You know you’re definitely talking to a guy who has been around and has seen a lot of stuff.”

All these years later, the onus is on Cooper again to persevere, to prove himself. Purpura has an educated guess how that will go.

“I think he’ll be an excellent major league manager,” Purpura says. “When you get to that level, you’ve got to win, and I think he will. It’s one of those good-bad things. You wish him well, but you’re going to miss him when he’s gone.”